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Cleary comes full circle ahead of A dream night

Four years after leaving Liverpool, the Dundalk defender finally gets his chance to play at a Premier League ground

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Dubliner Daniel Cleary will relish the chance to fulfill his dream of playing in an iconic Premier League ground, a reward for his efforts at the club including a goal against KI Klaksvik

Dubliner Daniel Cleary will relish the chance to fulfill his dream of playing in an iconic Premier League ground, a reward for his efforts at the club including a goal against KI Klaksvik

SPORTSFILE

Dubliner Daniel Cleary will relish the chance to fulfill his dream of playing in an iconic Premier League ground, a reward for his efforts at the club including a goal against KI Klaksvik

For one Dubliner, playing at the Emirates was part of the plan hatched as a teenager -but in the shirt of Liverpool.

Nine years after he left home, Daniel Cleary will trot out on to the turf of that London theatre of football, but in the jersey of his adopted home Dundalk FC.

The career path didn't take him where he thought it would, but the destination ended up the same - facing the Gunners in a game with a lot riding on it: Dundalk up against Arsenal, and up against it in general, in the Europa League tonight.

"Yeah, the plan was to play at a place like the Emirates, for Liverpool. But you soon learn that football works in weird ways, I have had a different sort of journey to get here," says Cleary, who had an instructive, but ultimately fruitless, five-year spell with the Anfield club but has managed to turn around a potential career dead end with a medal-laden stint at Dundalk.

Last week's Europa League game at home to Molde was a dose of harsh reality for Dundalk, who led 1-0 at half-time but lost 2-1.

Missed

The coaching staff and players have looked back on that as a missed opportunity and the mantra from the camp this week is that, while the adventure of playing away to Arsenal in a competitive game can be a career highlight on a personal level, it's also serious business for the club.

Shane Keegan, on the Dundalk staff, delved deep into online resources to provide the players with information on opponents from Andorra, Moldova, Faroe Islands and Norway in the European games to date, but anything they need to know about Arsenal is readily available on Sky Sports News 24/7.

Which is why Cleary is determined to not get overwhelmed by the sheer size of the task, or the questions in his mind going to bed last night - will I be marking Alexandre Lazazette or Nicolas Pepe? - instead stressing the need to treat the match as a game of football and not an occasion.

"They are a massive club on a world scale and of course we will respect them, but we can't think too much about it. If we worry about them too much we'll get caught up in all of that, we just need to concentrate on ourselves and what our game-plan is," he says.

"We want to enjoy the occasion and taking part in the Europa League in any ground is great. It's that bit more special playing in a place like the Emirates, but we can't go there thinking it's a friendly.

"We do a lot of analysis on the teams we play in Europe but we see Arsenal a lot more than the likes of Sheriff from Moldova. We have been looking at them all week and hopefully the homework we have done works out for us tonight.

"It's hard to know what team they will put out tonight as they have a big game at the weekend. We just have to be ready for whatever happens when that team-sheet comes in, ready for whoever we come up against. No matter who the manager picks, their players will be of the highest standard."

Treat

Dundalk know they can't think of just being here as a treat, yet for Cleary, getting to play in a Premier League ground, in a game of consequence, looked a long way off when he left Liverpool in 2016, after a five-year stay, as a post-Anfield spell at Birmingham City didn't work out and he was at a loose end before joining Dundalk.

"I was at a crossroads in my career, it was sink or swim. My back was against the wall, I was in a place where I didn't know if I was going to continue with football, I got the opportunity at Dundalk and I've not looked back since. I am there three years now, I have two league titles, two cups, and have reached the Europa League group stages," he says.

"I had a break away from football for a month or two when I first came home to Ireland. It was in my mind that I might have to step away from this, but I believed in my own ability and that if I got the right opportunity from the right manager I could show that ability, and luckily Stephen Kenny gave me that chance. He believed in me.

"I always backed myself and my ability but you need luck and you need to be in the right place at the right time.

"I think I can play at a high standard. I can't say I wasn't good enough to play for Liverpool but I was never given that opportunity to prove that so we'll never know.

"You need games behind you before anyone takes you seriously. You get to an age where you have played a lot of reserve games but you need matches," he added.

Learned

"I learned a lot at Liverpool, I was coached by some very good coaches and I enjoyed my time there, but when I came to Dundalk I had only played one first-team game and that was in the Conference.

"I took to it straight away. Shamrock Rovers away was my first game and I loved it from the start, I fitted right in."

Europe was a slog for Dundalk last year but 2020 has brought progress, albeit the wake-up call at home to Molde, a game Dundalk could have won.

"Small mistakes cost you at this level and we gave away two soft goals, those are the demands at this level, you can't switch off for even a second," Cleary says.

"You might get away with it in the league or the cup but not in the Europa League. We saw the quality Molde had, we dealt well with it at times but then two lapses of concentration and we gave away two goals.

"We can draw confidence from a lot of our game but then in the last half-hour they turned it on and we didn't deal with it. Every team you come up against at this level will have real quality and we need to deal with it better."

But how do they deal with an Arsenal side who could decide to spring a €75m man like Pepe off the bench?

"It will take one of the best performances that we have ever put in as a team since I have been here, we need to stick together," says the former Crumlin United man.

"We know they will have stages where they look really good, and as with Molde, we need to be able to ride the storm when they have possession. We have a lot of quality as well and we need to take advantage of our chances, look at their weaknesses and try to exploit them."


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